A distinctly 21st-century subgenre has emerged from the long tradition of newspaper movies over the last few years. While first-rate motion pictures are still made now and then in the old-school mode of All the President’s Men — David Fincher’s underrated Zodiac is an example — films about ethically challenged journalists have become more common. Among the first was 2003’s Shattered Glass: It chronicled the downfall of New Republic writer Stephen Glass, who was found to have fabricated much of the work that brought him to prominence. The latest movie in this vein is Rod Lurie’s Resurrecting the Champ.
Lurie’s film offers a curious and somewhat confounding twist on the “ethically challenged journalist” formula. Like Shattered Glass, the movie is based on a true story. Unlike that movie or any other in this subgenre that I have seen, however, it deliberately distorts the truth of the story on which it’s based.
What happened in reality is that a Los Angeles Times sportswriter by the name of J.R. Moehringer crossed paths with a homeless man claiming to be one-time top-ranked heavyweight “Battling” Bob Satterfield. The reporter spent months preparing a piece on the guy — but when his editors insisted that he confirm his subject’s identity, Moehringer discovered he’d been had. The real Satterfield had died more than a decade earlier. The story at that point was just as dead.
What happens in Resurrecting the Champ diverges from the truth in what appears, ironically, to be an effort to make some sort of statement about the importance of journalistic integrity. Josh Hartnett stars as a Denver Times sportswriter grappling with enough demons for a half-dozen dramas. First, he lives in the shadow of his late father, a legendary sports broadcaster. Second, he lives in the shadow of his wife (Kathryn Morris), who is his senior and a more accomplished writer for the same paper. Third, he’s separated from her for reasons that are never made clear. Fourth, he’s so desperate to secure the affection of his 6-year-old son (Dakota Goyo) that he makes up stories exaggerating his relationships with the celebrities he’s covered — claiming to have played golf with Muhammad Ali, for instance. Fifth, Hartnett’s editor (Alan Alda) thinks his work is lazy, and the reporter wants desperately to impress him. Sixth, he apparently was absent the day they covered fact checking at journalism school.
Because, when the writer meets an old drunk who lives on the street and claims to be Satterfield, he decides the story is the “title shot” that will take him to the top and make everything right. People keep saying, “I thought Satterfield died years ago,” but somehow Hartnett manages not to locate the obit in the organization’s database or even check his subject out on Wikipedia. Instead, he takes everything the supposed Satterfield says about his rise and fall at face value. The reporter hits the big time when his profile hits the streets, and he says nothing when he learns shortly afterward that the old guy is really a small-time fighter masquerading as the former champ. He doesn’t say anything, but he does agonize over his situation. He agonizes a lot.
More fun than watching Josh Hartnett agonize is watching Samuel L. Jackson play a homeless guy who can spot a sucker a mile away. He’s a topnotch actor who can keep a meandering, melodramatic story like this one semi-entertaining in the moment — but even he can’t keep it from feeling like forgettable piffle the moment it’s over. For his part, Lurie completely loses it in the final act. Having evidently realized he’s made a message movie whose message doesn’t make much sense, the director fills the last 10 to 15 minutes with strained, preachy speeches and heartstring-tugging montages — which don’t make a whole lot more.
Writers shouldn’t play fast and loose with the truth to make their stories juicier. I’m pretty sure that’s Lurie’s point. This far into the age of Jayson Blair and James Frey, I’m fairly sure we’re already all on the same page where that’s concerned. Resurrecting the Champ wants to say something important about eroding journalistic standards, but whatever it is, it definitely isn’t front-page news.